By Jeff Cohen. This article was first published on FAIR.
Ahead Only (cc photo: Pavlos Stamatis)

(cc photo: Pavlos Stamatis)

The Centrist Ideology of the News Media

There is a notion — widely believed in the mainstream media — that while there is propaganda of the left and propaganda of the right, there is no such thing as propaganda of the center. In this view, the center doesn’t produce propaganda, it produces straight news. Mainstream journalists typically explain: “We don’t tilt left, we don’t tilt right. We’re straight down the middle of the road. We’re dead center.”

When mainstream journalists tell me during debates that “our news doesn’t reflect bias of the left or the right,” I ask them if they therefore admit to reflecting bias of the center. Journalists react as if I’ve uttered an absurdity: “Bias of the center! What’s that?”

It is a strange concept to many in the media. They can accept that conservatism or rightism is an ideology that carries with it certain values and opinions, beliefs about the past, goals for the future. They can accept that leftism carries with it values, opinions, beliefs. But being in the center — being a centrist — is somehow not having an ideology at all. Somehow centrism is not an “ism” carrying with it values, opinions and beliefs.

Center Not “Dead”: It Moves

The journalistic center is not inert. It moves. It shifted slightly leftward in the mid-’70s in the wake of Watergate, when reporters were allowed greater latitude for independent inquiry. In the ’80s, the journalistic center veered strongly rightward.

The two main establishment papers — the New York Times and the Washington Post — are the primary propaganda organs of the center, though editorially they’ve tilted rightward throughout the ’80s. As soon as Ronald Reagan was inaugurated in 1981, for example, both papers began promoting White House charges that the Soviets were the primary source of terrorism in the world. Despite some conservative positions, however, the two papers are best seen as organs of the (corporate) center.

The centrists in TV news have also been tilting rightward. FAIR’s study of Nightline, perhaps TV’s most influential news show, found a conservative slant toward “experts” from the white, male establishment. The left was generally excluded. Nightline‘s four most frequent guests were all Reagan sympathizers: Henry Kissinger, Alexander Haig, Elliott Abrams and Jerry Falwell. MacNeil/Lehrer‘s guest list seems even more conservative and elite than Nightline‘s — which is why the National Conservative Political Action Conference voted MacNeil/Lehrer “the most balanced network news program.” According to the Progressive (7/87), co-anchor Jim Lehrer dislikes wasting time interviewing critics from peace or public interest groups, whom he refers to as “moaners” and “whiners.”

But instead of belaboring the point that the centrist media are currently tilting rightward, I’d like to address some elements of centrist news propaganda that are somewhat constant.

Centrist Cliches

If, for simplicity’s sake, we define the left as seeking substantial social reform toward a more equitable distribution of wealth and power, and we define the right as seeking to undo social reform and regulation toward a free marketplace that allows wide disparities in wealth and power, then we can define the political center as seeking to preserve the status quo, tinkering with the system only very prudently to work out what are seen as minor glitches, problems or inequities.

How do these three positions play out journalistically? Unlike left-wing or right-wing publications which are often on the attack, centrist propaganda emphasizes system-supporting news, frequently speaking in euphemisms. If scandals come to light, centrist propaganda often focuses less on the scandal than on how well “the system works” in fixing it. (This was the editorial drumbeat in the papers of record following both Watergate and Iran-Contra.) When it comes to foreign policy, centrist propaganda sometimes questions this or that tactic, but it never doubts that the goal of policy is anything other than promoting democracy, peace and human rights. Other countries may subvert, destabilize or support terrorism. The U.S. just wages peace.

If propaganda from the center only emphasized the upbeat, pointing so much to silver linings that it never acknowledged the existence of clouds, there’d be a credibility problem. The public wouldn’t believe such bland, euphemistic reporting. So, in selective cases, centrist propaganda does talk tough about government tyrants — especially if they’re foreign tyrants or U.S. officials already deposed. (J. Edgar Hoover was one such tyrant, whose 50-year reign at the FBI was rigorously scrutinized by the mainstream media only after he was dead and buried.) And centrist propaganda can take a tough look at a social problem — especially if it’s deemed fixed or on its way to being fixed.

Euphemisms in the centrist press (putting a good news gloss on bad news) can be quite comical. Prime examples are found in headlines that miscapsulize the news. A New York Times article after a Moscow summit (6/2/88) quoted Margaret Thatcher commenting on Ronald Reagan: “Poor dear, there’s nothing between his ears.” The article’s headline: “Thatcher Salute to Reagan Years.”

Headlines about the Nicaraguan Contras were often unjustifiably upbeat. On November 3, 1986, at a time the Reagan White House was stressing the Contras’ new-found fighting ability (and after the New York Times had editorially endorsed Contra aid), the Times ran this headline: “A Day’s Toll Shows Contras’ Ability to Strike.” The article described nothing more than a Contra attack on an agricultural co-op which killed the director and nine civilians, several of them children. Similarly, a Washington Post news story (2/4/88) described a pre-dawn Contra attack on a farming co-op, where a Contra bullet left a young girl “lying in a ditch screaming for help.” The headline: “Combat Performance of the Contras Said to Improve.”

Blunt Talk…About the Other Guys

Centrist propaganda can sometimes contain blunt social criticism — especially of someone else’s system. A news story in the New York Times (7/23/89) on political discontent in Japan carried this headline: “Trembling at the Top: Japan’s Ruling Elite Faces a Fed-Up People.” The Times, which has little trouble identifying a “ruling elite” in Japan, has never been able to discern such an elite in the U.S. in all its voluminous reporting on our political-economic system.

According to centrist propaganda, not only is the U.S. without a “ruling elite,” the U.S. is also without an “empire” — unlike other countries. The big bad Soviet Union has an empire. Lowly Vietnam has an empire. In the thousands of mainstream news stories we’ve seen on the Nicaraguan revolution, never once has it been counterposed to “Washington’s empire.” In the New York Times, “U.S. imperialism” is one of those dubious concepts that only appears between quotation marks.

Is narrowing concentration of media ownership a grave problem in the U.S.? You wouldn’t know it from the New York Times, which covered the Time Warner merger as just another business story, hardly mentioning threats to pluralism and the First Amendment. One of the few Times articles questioning the Time Warner merger — “Time Deal Worrying Competitors”(3/7/89) — featured the complaints of Robert Wright, president of little ole NBC, owned by GE.

But you shouldn’t conclude that the New York Times is unconcerned about media concentration. The Times is concerned…at least in Italy. “Newspaper Deal in Italy Stirs Debate Over Press Freedom” (New York Times, 4/24/89) probed the handful of firms that owns Italy’s press. The candid article cited complaints of Italian reporters that “concentration produces bland journalism, especially on economic matters and political issues close to their owners’ hearts or pocketbooks.” The Times quoted one journalist saying his boss doesn’t have to interfere in the newsroom “because there’s total self-censorship.” If only the Times paid as much attention to owner influences and self-censorship at home.

Is there a wide disparity in living conditions between America’s rich and America’s poor — between, for example, those who own or manage America’s coal mines and the miners who work in them? Such contrasts could be graphically shown on TV and would probably attract big ratings. U.S. television is obsessed with Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, but not with juxtaposing the wealth of the rich against the poverty of, say, Donald Trump’s kitchen workers or Lawrence Tisch’s field hands.

This didn’t stop ABC‘s Rick Inderfurth (World News Tonight, 7/21/89), who boldly took a film crew inside the ramshackle homes of striking coal miners and vividly contrasted that with the relative wealth of the mine managers. There’s a catch: ABC‘s flirtation with Marxist agitprop dealt not with conditions in Virginia, but in the Soviet Union. (The militant strike against the Pittston coal company in Virginia — occurring at the same time as the Soviet strike — has been sparsely covered; the evening network newscasts devoted 36 minutes to the Soviet miners in eight days, twice the coverage of the U.S. strike over four months.) One wonders if a TV reporter presenting the same video class analysis of U.S. coal fields would have been fired for leftist bias.

Forever Waging Peace

In foreign coverage, the key signature of centrist propaganda is the portrayal of the U.S. as mediator or peacemaker. If rightist propaganda sees the U.S. caving in to Communism and terrorism around the world, and leftist propaganda sees the U.S. subverting governments and Third World movements in the interests of a corporate elite and blind anti-Communism, then centrist propaganda sees the U.S. going around the world doing good, mediating in the cause of peace.

No matter what the facts are, on the pages of the New York Times, the U.S. is forever waging peace. If the Times had chosen a “person of the year” in 1988, it would have been Reagan’s Secretary of State, George Shultz. Describing Shultz in a news headline (New York Times, 2/21/88) as the “Lonely Peacemaker,” the Times portrayed him and the U.S. as crusaders for peace from Southern Africa to the Middle East to Central America.

In Angola, where the U.S. (along with South Africa) spent years arming the guerrillas of Jonas Savimbi, that fact went down a Times memory hole, as the paper portrayed the U.S. not as a major party to the bloody conflict, but as the main force for peace.

In Central America, the U.S. consistently worked to disrupt the peace process, and the Times just as consistently portrayed U.S. policy as supporting it. The key element of the Esquipulas (“Arias”) peace accord signed by the five Central American presidents was the cessation of aid to the Contras and other guerrilla groups in the region. Despite U.S. subversion of the accord by continuing to finance and equip the contras, week after week for two years the Times told its readers that the U.S. supported the accord (e.g., 8/5/89): “The Bush administration supports the Arias plan but says the Contras should not be disbanded until after the elections.”

Another hallmark of centrist propaganda is to affirm, no matter what the evidence, that U.S. foreign policy is geared toward promoting democracy. Journalists are not unaware that the U.S. helped overthrow democratic governments, for example, in Guatemala in ’54, Brazil in ’64, Chile in ’73 — but these cases are considered ancient history, no longer relevant. (In centrist ideology, since the system is constantly fixing and renewing itself, U.S. abuses — even against democracy — become distant past overnight.)

Mainstream journalists respond to such criticism by explaining that articles for the daily press are not history texts and cannot include everything. That’s true, but centrist propaganda finds space for certain histories and not others. Many if not most of the reports on Hungary’s transition from Communism traced human rights abuses to the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian uprising in 1956. By contrast, reports on Guatemala’s current human rights situation rarely traced events to the U.S.-sponsored coup of 1954.

Even the best mainstream reporters don’t question the motives of U.S. policy. Take Roy Gutman of Newsday, who habitually challenged the lies and contradictions in Nicaragua policy, but not its democratic purpose. Reporting on factional in-fighting within the White House, Gutman described William Casey, Jeane Kirkpatrick and Oliver North as hard-liners who “believed the use of force was the only way to bring about democracy in Nicaragua.” That folks like Casey and North might have other than democratic goals is beyond question.

Good Guys Caught Between Left and Right

Besides consistently promoting peace and democracy overseas, according to centrist propaganda, the U.S. also consistently supports the good guys abroad. Not surprisingly, the good guys are always “centrists” on the political spectrum. At least that’s what the media make them out to be. And there’s another media cliche one hears about our good guys, the centrists: They are perpetually hemmed in by the bad guys of left and right.

For years, as El Salvador’s armed forces and allied death squads murdered thousands of civilians, media pundits told us that massive U.S. aid to Salvador’s military was needed to bolster “centrists” such as Jose Napoleon Duarte. In the media mantra of the time, Duarte was “hemmed in by death squads on the right and guerrillas on the left.” In using that cliche, centrist media chose to promote a dubious State Department line, while ignoring groups such as Americas Watch and Amnesty International that had documented that the security forces of the Duarte government worked hand in glove with the death squads.

One of the newest “centrists” in media propaganda is Yitzhak Shamir. A New York Times news story (7/24/87) wrote of “a careful balancing act that Mr. Shamir has mastered in the years he has been caught between right-wing political rivals in his own party and left-wing coalition partners in the Labor Party.” It’s quite a reach to portray Shamir as a centrist balanced between extremes, given his 40-year career on the far right attacking centrists as traitors to Israel. In the 1940s he was a leading figure in the Stern Gang, a group so extreme it applauded Hitler’s principles and sought to ally with Hitler against the British (The Nation, 8/7/89).

Perhaps the most graphic component of foreign policy coverage in centrist media is the inordinate number of (often unnamed) government sources: White House, State, Pentagon, U.S. intelligence, etc. Some reporters act more like stenographers for those in power than journalists. When discussing these reporters, the phrase “centrist propaganda” misses the mark. “State propaganda” is a more apt description.

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Jeff Cohen was the director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College, and he was the founder of the media watchdog FAIR. He is the co-founder of